Networking: Creating Crucial Connections
The Wisconsin Lawyer
Ellen Ostrow, Ph.D., is the founder of LawyersLifeCoach LLC, providing personal and career coaching for lawyers. She is editor of the free online newsletter Beyond the Billable Hour. This article is excerpted from Issue #36 of the newsletter.
In recent coaching conversations with lawyers, I’ve been asked the following questions: “How might I find people with whom to do informational interviews?”
“I’d like to do work for ‘ABC’ client, but I don’t know anyone there. What can I do?”
“My firm invited a marketing consultant to do a presentation on business development. The consultant told us to call two people every day. I hate making cold calls and imposing on people. Is that really what I have to do to bring in business?”
“Inviting people to lunch just to try to get their business feels so sleazy. Aren’t there any other options?”
“I sent in my resume to xxxx. I guess there’s nothing more for me to do now except just wait and see, right?”
Building and maintaining a network is yet another aspect of a lawyer’s life you won’t learn about in law school. Some attorneys are natural networkers: they’re extroverted, make friends easily, and enjoy helping and maintaining contact with people they like. However, many lawyers don’t quite understand why networking is important.
Effective networking is a crucial part of a career-management strategy. The connections you make with people can find you the job you want, provide needed support, get you answers to important questions, bring you business, and sustain you over the long haul.
You probably network many times a day without realizing it - if you’ve ever called a friend to recommend a good restaurant for a client lunch or for a suggestion about childcare, you have networked.
Becoming more effective at networking is really just a matter of having a clear picture of what you’re trying to accomplish, planning systematically, and using your strengths to accomplish your goals. Here’s what you need to know to craft crucial connections.
When you cultivate a networking relationship, you’re focused on understanding the other person’s goals, needs, and interests. As you learn more about an individual, you’re thinking about the people you know who might be able to help your new contact. As you learn new information, you’re thinking about people in your network who would appreciate you informing them.
Networking is primarily about generosity and thoughtfulness. You create relationships and sustain them unselfishly, at the same time hoping for reciprocity. Odds are that if you’ve nurtured a relationship with a colleague, he or she will be happy to provide you with the advice or assistance you may one day need.
In short, networking relationships are “real” relationships, not superficial encounters.
Know What Networking is Not
Networking Accomplishes What Technical Competence Cannot
Certainly, doing excellent work is essential. But without connections, where will it get you? Visibility is necessary for professional success. Networking enables you to make your strengths and accomplishments visible to people in decision-making positions.
1) Career Changes and Job Searches. Networking is the most effective way to learn about careers and get access to job opportunities. If you’re exploring career alternatives, your network members will introduce you to people who will meet with you for informational interviews. As you describe your interests to people in your network, they’re likely to come up with ideas that hadn’t occurred to you.
Furthermore, research consistently shows that roughly 80 percent of jobs are found through networking. And before you accept an offer, networking will provide you with the insider information you’ll need to make a good choice.
Even after you apply for a position, your networking activities can influence the outcome. For example, a lawyer I was coaching hoped to work for a particular nonprofit. After sending in her application, she contacted a friend from law school who also did nonprofit work. The friend happened to know the executive director of the organization to which she was applying. All it took was a phone call from one colleague to another for her application to go to the top of the pile.
Had my client maintained the relationship with her law school friend in order to get this contact? Of course not. But over the years they’d stayed in touch, supporting and advising one another along the way. So when my client needed some help, she had someone who wanted to help her.
2) Professional Success. The fact that exclusion from informal networks has been among the major obstacles to success for women in law firms attests to the importance of networking.
To be successful within an organization, you’ll need to have a good relationship with a powerful advocate. As you develop connections within your workplace, you’ll learn whom not to cross, how to get great work, and so on. You need to connect with people who can help you advance in your career.
Having a knowledge network is essential for providing great client service. There’s simply too much information for any one person to know everything on any given subject. If a client calls requesting information you don’t have, knowing who does have it is essential.
No matter how excellent your work, you’re unlikely to live up to your potential if you’re not visible, both within and outside of your workplace. Networking allows you to ensure that others are aware of your abilities and achievements.
Networking is also essential to business development. As you network, others become aware of your expertise. When they need someone to speak on the subject, you’ll come to mind. Business referrals most often come from people you know - colleagues and former clients with whom you’ve maintained ties and who can verify your integrity and competence.
3) Support. Lawyers face so many challenges that it’s difficult to imagine how you can overcome them all without a support network. These crucial connections remind women lawyers especially that you’re not the only one who’s trying to balance work and life, or who is taken for the secretary when answering the phone.
How to Build Your Network
Next to each name, list others that person may know. For example, when a coaching client of mine was trying to connect with some people in the entertainment industry, I put her in touch with a family member who is friendly with a number of movie producers in Los Angeles.
2) Who Would You Like to Know? Let your goals guide your networking efforts. Identify communities to which you’d like to belong.
We’ve all heard the idea of “six degrees of separation.” Consider the likelihood that there are six people between you and any person you’d like to meet. You probably know at least the first two links. You can figure out the remaining links one at a time.
Suppose you’re trying to find a position in environmental law. It would make sense for you to attend local bar and specialty bar events and try to become active on a committee in the environmental law section of the bar. As you make connections, people in your network are likely to introduce you to others who work in organizations looking for environmental lawyers. As you develop relationships with new links, you’ll ultimately connect with people involved in hiring decisions.
3) Who Needs to Know About What You Offer? If you’re networking for business development purposes, you need to connect with those you’d like to serve. There are many ways to provide others with the information they need in order to hire you as their attorney.
First, know what meetings and conferences members of your target market attend. When you participate in these meetings, people already in your network can introduce you to new contacts.
Second, offer to make presentations to these groups. Your speeches will make you visible and establish your credibility. More importantly, your conversations with people after you speak allow you to build new networking relationships. These relationships may lead you to new business.
4) What to Do When You Make New Contacts. Active listening is your most important tool in establishing these new relationships. Many people put pressure on themselves to say “the right thing” when they meet someone new. Instead, let your genuine interest in the other person lead you. Listen for what’s most important to this person and how you might help her.
It’s useful to have a brief way of describing who you are and what benefits you can provide. If you’ve prepared this in advance, you won’t have to come up with it in the moment. Don’t try to sell yourself or anything else. Be genuine. Hopefully, you’re doing work you love, so you can talk about it with authentic enthusiasm.
5) Follow Up. If you want the people you met to be a part of your network, you’ll need to follow up after the first meeting, preferably within 48 hours. Send an email letting them know how much you enjoyed meeting them and expressing your wish to talk further. Send the article you promised you would.
6) Don’t Allow Rejection Concerns to Stop You. Many lawyers are concerned about imposing on others. Be sure to turn on your social radar and pay attention to the reactions you’re getting. It’s relatively rare to get a negative response when you’re communicating genuine interest and a desire to be helpful. But if you think you’re reading a negative response, don’t make assumptions. Often people who fear appearing “needy” will interpret a less-than-engaged response as a brush-off. Remember that the other person probably has as much on her plate as you do. Instead of worrying, ask her if there would be a better time to connect.
Of course, occasionally you will experience rejection. When this happens, make yourself list every alternative explanation for it other than one that’s your fault. Examples might include: they’re too busy; they’ve been pressured for business by lawyers before and are making an incorrect assumption about you; or you caught them on a really bad day.
Maintaining Crucial Connections
Whatever the frequency and nature of the communication (having lunch, exchanging articles of interest, mailing newsletters, and so on), it’s important to keep in touch in a way that meets the needs of the other person.
Try to manage expectations and to be reliable. If you’re often on the road and have trouble scheduling lunches, it’s best to inform your new connection about this directly rather than to continually decline her invitations.
Of course, as with any other important relationship, do what you say you will do. Don’t promise more than you can deliver.
A Final Tip
And remember - the holiday season is a great time to reconnect with your network, even if you haven’t maintained it as well as you’d planned. Consider how wonderful it feels when you receive cards with personalized notes from people you haven’t heard from in a while telling you they were thinking of you or expressing appreciation for all you’ve given them.